Nick Bilton has a piece in the New York Times in which he tells of how he wandered into an old bookshop in New York and stared (and smelled) nostalgically at the printed pages all around. As an avowed e-reader now, he nonetheless misses the experience of shopping in bookstores.

For those of us who have switched to e-readers , the e-book shopping experience, while immediate and painless, is about as sentimental as a trip to the family doctor. There are no creaking doors, or bells that announce your arrival so someone can smile at you as you walk inside. There isn’t even anything distinctive in the size, shape or feel of the book you’re buying.

There is no nostalgia in online book shopping.

Nonetheless, Bilton writes, when it came to the clinch and he actually considered buying some of these books, he reconsidered, given that he would have to lug them physically all the way back to San Diego.

I was reminded of the impracticality of these physical books. While they were beautiful, I remembered that I wouldn’t be able to search for specific words in them. Or share passages with friends, simply by copying and pasting, on Twitter and Facebook. Or that I can’t stuff 500 different books in my backpack without breaking my back.

So in the end, he decided not to buy.

A couple of things here: it’s interesting that even e-book lovers aren’t immune to the appeal of the ol’ smell of the book. But it’s also interesting that Bilton didn’t crave the smell for the smell’s own sake—indeed, when it came right down to it, it wasn’t strong enough to overcome all the disadvantages paper books had in his situation. Instead, it triggered feelings of nostalgia. (Which isn’t surprising. Scent is the sense most strongly associated with recollection, after all.)

But how does he know there’s no nostalgia in online book shopping. There might very well be—in a few years once there’s been time for nostalgia to develop. By definition, nostalgia is remembrance of the past. And not “last Tuesday,” either. Maybe someone who hangs out in coffee shops while they read and order e-books might someday trigger that same kind of nostalgia on going into a coffee shop?

It’s also amusing to note that Bilton did exactly the thing bookstore owners have been complaining of for so very long—he effectively treated the bookstore as a way to look for books he might want to read electronically. Perhaps he didn’t do it intentionally, but he did consider paper purchases, but rejected them as too bulky and unwieldy—but now that he’s been reminded of those titles, who’s to say he might not purchase some of them to read on his Kindle on the way home? How many people step into a bookstore honestly intending to buy something but then change their minds and decide to buy electronically instead?

I can’t smell, but more than once I’ve had the same experience in bookstores lately. I greatly respect and admire the printed page, sole repository of information for centuries, container of the accumulated wit and wisdom of thousands who no longer walk this earth. As John Milton put it:

For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous dragon’s teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men.

Seeing so many hundreds of them surrounding you on all sides, even if they’re just cheap science-fiction paperbacks, can inspire feelings of awe if you just think about it. How many hours of how many peoples’ lives, what portions of their souls, are bound up in the walls of paper around you? Imagine how Nicolas Cage’s character felt after he lit all the torches in the treasure room at the end of National Treasure. That’s how you can feel looking around a good bookstore, if you have the right mindset. Books really are a kind of treasure, and seeing so many of them together in one place is impressive in a way that scrolling down the list of titles on your Kindle just isn’t—even if you can hold a lot more books on your Kindle.

But just like the golden chalices and jewelry in Cage’s treasure room, they’re not really very practical to carry around in your pocket. At least in the modern lifestyle where space and portability are at a premium. Yes, you can read them if the power fails. On the other hand, you can read many charged-up e-readers, tablets, etc. in the dark if power has failed. And most people who enjoy e-books, myself included, aren’t going to be in that kind of situation very often.

So I’ve come to feel about huge piles of paper books the way I feel about other people’s children: I love them to pieces, but the thing I love most of all about them is that they aren’t mine. Perhaps a bit sad, but there you go.

(Found via CNet.)


  1. I really love shopping in bookstores too. I shop at places that also have ebooks, so that I can decide what I want, then buy it online there in the store on my mobile. Just wish I could buy a physical “card” for a specific book as a gift (e.g. with the cover on the card) as I’m not a big fan of gifting “stored value”. Recipient should be able to redeem for either print or e. I might even buy that way for myself and redeem once I get home on my fast connection.

  2. my experience in bookstores is sort of similar. i love the smell, and as a graphic designer i love the fonts, layouts, ink on paper, the texture of paper, etc etc etc — but the advantages of ebooks just outweigh (ha!) the cellulose ones to me now. i find so many of the paper ones wasteful, too, and one thing he didn’t mention but which is something i’ve noticed in myself is that i find searching book …by book …by book INCREDIBLY tedious now. yes, please, rail at me about the pleasure of the hunt, and serendipity, and my internet-corrupted short attention span, but at the end of the day having something found by a search term is SO much better to me.

  3. Many and most people can get along without paper books. That majority can also do fine without original paintings or original photographs. The issue here is the different roles of source and surrogate.

    Of course the source can be screen based. Think of all the newspapers that survive only on microfilm. More to the point, consider all websites. So one way of looking at the source and surrogate contrast is to consider what the combination of these delivery options offers and how the two options can be optimized and even how they can work together.

    Screen delivery, source or surrogate, offers remote access, automated searching or self-indexing and a capacity for live revision and linage. Paper or print delivery offers electronic device and systems independence, content immutability and some curious, self-authentication qualities. There is a strange complementary aspect!

    In the final appraisal we need to consider transmission of culture and information generally. Both screen and paper transmission are needed but, for responsible transmission, there may be preference for physical sources and virtual surrogates.

  4. It takes all kinds. I absolutely do not miss wasting time in bookstores, staring at rows of books shelved spine out, trying to decide which were worth taking a look at and often walking out with nothing. Long before I had a Kindle, I started doing all my book buying on Amazon.

  5. I used to love reading physical books (the smell!) and wandering through bookstores. When I bought my Nook, I was worried that I would not be able to get over my love of these tangible experiences. I soon found, however, just how joyful it is to be able to find and purchase a book I want in just a few minutes. It is so nice to not have to drive to a store every time I want a new book (which is often). I also find it nice to be able to buy a book at any time, day or night.

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